Supreme Court To Hear Curtis Flowers Case After Podcast Investigation
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're going to hear now about the extraordinary case of Curtis Flowers. He's a black man on death row in Mississippi. Over the past two decades, he has been tried six times for the same crime - the 1996 murder of four employees in a Mississippi furniture store. After seeing three prior convictions overturned and two other trials end in mistrial, in 2010, Flowers was convicted again and sentenced to death.
Now his fate lies with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is taking up the case tomorrow. And the outcome rests on one question, whether potential jurors were excluded on the basis of race. American Public Media's investigative podcast "In The Dark" has been looking into that question. And in the latest episode, here is host Madeleine Baran.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST "IN THE DARK")
MADELEINE BARAN: In the spring of 2010, a letter arrived at Diane Copper's house in Winona, Miss.
DIANE COPPER: I opened the letter and said wow.
BARAN: It was a jury summons, a letter asking Diane to appear at the courthouse in Winona a few weeks later. Diane said she knew right then what trial it had to be - the State of Mississippi v. Curtis Flowers, the sixth one.
COPPER: Curtis Flowers - a big trial.
BARAN: Hundreds of people in Montgomery County got letters like this one. Flancie Jones got a letter. And when it came time to go to court, she got all dressed up.
FLANCIE JONES: I wore my low-rider jeans. And I wore, you know, these little old shoes with - the heel was out. But I dressed my part.
BARAN: Flancie drove down to the courthouse.
JONES: There was so many of us. We was just like flies. It was so many that you couldn't park outside. You couldn't walk in that entryway. It was just a million people there.
BARAN: There were 600 prospective jurors, and that group of 600 had to be trimmed down to just 12 - 12 plus three alternates. To do that, Flancie, Diane and the others would have to go through jury selection, through the process that's supposed to help choose a jury of 12 people who can be fair and impartial.
And in the Curtis Flowers case, that process took five days - five days of being questioned, first by the judge, Joey Loper. A lot of prospective jurors were sent home after that. And then, the remaining prospective jurors were questioned by the lawyers. District Attorney Doug Evans asked the questions for the prosecution.
JONES: The DA just was - he pretty much was running the show.
BARAN: Doug Evans asked the prospective jurors - do you know where Tardy Furniture is, the store where the murders happened? Have you shopped there? Have you been sued by Tardy Furniture? He asked a lot of questions about whether the jurors knew Curtis or had lived near him or his family. This is prospective juror Alexander Robinson.
ALEXANDER ROBINSON: The lawyers, they grilled us. They asked a lot of questions, all kinds of questions.
BARAN: When those days of questioning were over, the prospective jurors were sent out of the courtroom. And they waited in the hallway while the judge met with Doug Evans and the defense team. And this is when the jury for Curtis Flowers' sixth trial was chosen.
Then the bailiff came out and told everyone to go back into the courtroom, and Judge Loper called out the names of the people who'd been chosen to sit on the jury. One by one, Judge Loper called the names of one white juror, then another, then another. When the jury was finally all seated, there were 11 white jurors and one black juror, Alexander Robinson. Flancie, Diane and the other prospective black jurors were all dismissed. As to why they didn't end up on the jury...
JONES: Oh, I don't know. They don't say why. They don't say why. They just say, you can go.
BARAN: Flancie and Diane and the others didn't realize it. But in that meeting, when they were out in the hallway, Doug Evans had used his strikes to strike one white prospective juror and five black prospective jurors. When the trial began later that day, Curtis Flowers looked over at a jury box that was almost entirely white, this in a county that was almost 50 percent black. And that jury listened to seven days of testimony. And then, they deliberated for just 29 minutes.
They convicted Curtis Flowers, and they sentenced him to death.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Listening to that excerpt from the podcast "In The Dark" - and I'm joined by the host Madeleine Baran, who's with me.
BARAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Wow, 11 white jurors, one black juror - not representative of the community at all. But tell me what makes this a case that's going before the U.S. Supreme Court.
BARAN: Well, as you heard in our excerpt, before trial, a prosecutor does have the right to strike a certain number of people from the jury pool. It's called a peremptory challenge. And a prosecutor can use their strikes for almost any reason. But what they can't do is they cannot strike someone because of their race. It's unconstitutional. So if Flowers' appeal is going to be successful, his attorneys are going to need to demonstrate that the prosecutor, Doug Evans, did just that. But that can be difficult to do.
GREENE: Yeah. How do you prove that that was the intent?
BARAN: Well, it's not easy. So in some cases, you might find a smoking gun, like documents that demonstrate a prosecutor actually had a strategy to strike black jurors. And there's an example, a case in 2016 called Foster. The defense got ahold of the prosecution's notes from jury selection. And in that case, the prosecutor had referred to the black prospective jurors as B1, B2, B3.
BARAN: And they even had an investigator compare the black prospective jurors against each other in case, it, quote, "comes down to having to put a black on the jury."
GREENE: So that was pretty clear.
BARAN: Right. But in Curtis Flowers' case, there's nothing like that. So the defense in this case is in part relying on the prosecutor's history, which, the defense says, shows a pattern of weeding out black jurors.
GREENE: A pattern, OK. So say more about that.
BARAN: If you look at the six Flowers trials, Curtis Flowers has always been tried by an all-white or mostly white jury. And this is in an area that has a large African-American population. And Doug Evans, who's been the prosecutor for all six trials, has actually been caught twice before violating the Constitution by striking black jurors because they were black in this very case. One of Curtis Flowers' previous convictions was actually overturned because of it. So that's the Flowers trials. So the defense is saying there's a pattern there.
But our team at APM Reports, we also looked at all the other cases Evans and his office have brought to trial since Evans became the DA in 1992. And we found that under Evans' tenure, his office struck black people from juries at nearly 4 1/2 times the rate it struck white people. And I should say that Doug Evans has denied striking prospective jurors because of their race. I did try to talk to him about our findings, but he declined to sit down and go through them with us.
But he did tell us that he is convinced that Curtis Flowers is guilty. We asked what he would do if the Supreme Court overturns Flowers' conviction, and he said, he'd have to look at it at that point. It's worth pointing out, though, that if the case is overturned by the court, this prosecutor, Doug Evans, would still have the option to try the case again, which would be a seventh trial.
GREENE: Amazing. Our guest, Madeleine Baran, who is host of the APM podcast "In The Dark," giving us the background on a big Supreme Court case that is happening tomorrow.
Madeleine, thanks a lot.
BARAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.